The Radio Talking Book at 50

The Radio Talking Book at 50

By Carol Pankow

Director, State Services for the Blind

(Editor’s Note: I can still remember receiving that first Radio Talking Book machine when I was about five years old. I eagerly looked forward to Saturday mornings when I could listen to “Stories with Auntie Jo," a children’s program created by Joni Jonson Kilde, one of the original volunteer readers. As I grew older, I took a secret pleasure in staying up late at night to listen to some books that were not necessarily intended for ten-year-olds. (My mother later informed me she knew about it all along.) Because of these fond memories, I found the following remarks made by Carol Pankow at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Radio Talking Book especially interesting and informative. I hope you will join me in celebrating all the work that has gone into making our nation’s first radio reading service what it is today.

The author, Harper Lee, said this about the necessity of reading in her life: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read,” which is a funny thing for an author to say about reading. Then, she added this, “One does not love breathing!”

We often get calls from people who feel about reading the same way that Harper Lee did – that it’s just like breathing, and they can’t imagine their life without it. They tell us that books are their lifeline. We say that what we do in the Communication Center is provide access to print.  We provide access to print by transcribing books into braille, audio, and electronic formats; and we provide access to print by broadcasting books, newspapers and magazines through the Radio Talking Book. But, of course, in providing these services, we offer much more than access to print; we offer a connection to the community, to the world of ideas, to the pleasures of a good book, to the latest news, to civic engagement, to a competitive edge in the job search, and to all the beautiful and unnamable joys that reading can bring.

In going through the early history of RTB, what’s interesting is that it almost didn’t happen. Back then, C. Stanley Potter was the Director of SSB and the driving force behind the Communication Center. He was a man with strong convictions about fully integrating blind Minnesotans into the community. When the idea of broadcasting books for blind individuals over a closed circuit radio receiver first came to his attention, C. Stanley Potter was not enthusiastic. “I would not like to see money raised for this project,” he wrote, “Since this would just fortify in the public mind the unfortunate and not any longer accurate image of the idle blind person.”

By the late sixties, when the concept of a radio reading service re-surfaced in connection with the launching of Minnesota Public Radio, Mr. Potter had changed his mind. First, by that time, the demand for recorded books was growing exponentially, and C. Stanley Potter realized that a radio service would be a way to deliver more content to more people all at once.

But more important in the long term was Potter’s re-thinking of how a radio reading service could promote independence and equality for blind Minnesotans. In the late sixties, everyone read the paper. You got the paper off your porch in the morning and read it with your cup of coffee and bowl of cereal. Probably, you also subscribed to an evening paper. In those pages you not only got the sports scores, but also recipes and homemaking tips, and local interest stories that you would talk about with your co-workers and neighbors.

The newspapers were a part of the social glue that brought people together in a community. If blind people were going to have an equal share in the community, and opportunities to succeed on the job, then access to local newspapers had a place. The same was true for popular magazines and current books. A radio reading service could offer all these things.

Deciding that it should happen was the first step, but making it happen was complicated. It meant coming up with a closed-circuit radio receiver. C. Stanley Potter enlisted his neighbor, Bob Watson, to do that. It meant collaborating with the newly launched Minnesota Public Radio system. It meant bringing together public and private funders. Most of all, it meant recruiting volunteers, lots of them.

But, remarkably, all the stars lined up, and fifty years ago, the first-of-its-kind radio reading service was launched. It was a model that would be replicated across the country and around the world.

Thinking about that history, two things stand out to me. One is that all kinds of moving parts, and lots and lots of people had to come together to make this happen.

It took a combination of talent and dedication to make the Radio Talking Book possible. Long before the RTB came on the scene, the Hamm family, through their foundation, had a commitment to making print accessible. Following in their footsteps, over the past fifty years many organizations and foundations and thousands of individuals have stepped up to support the work of making print accessible. It’s a regular occurrence for Gwen to open an envelope and find a check and a note that says something like, “This gift is in honor of my mom or dad. They loved to read, and you made reading possible for them when they could no longer see the print.” At State Services for the Blind, we’re very proud of the public-private partnership that keeps the Communication Center humming. On behalf of SSB I extend my sincerest thanks to all of our donors who make this work happen.

We’re also humbled by the generosity and the sheer talent of our volunteers. If you listen to commercial audio books, at the end you’ll hear the names of the director and producers. For the Radio Talking Book, and our Communication Center, we largely depend on the competence of our volunteers to produce a high quality transcription. Making print accessible requires accuracy. Many of you have probably had the experience of listening to a commercially produced book and being jarred by the mispronunciation of a word. That rarely happens with our readers. You also might have the experience of listening to a commercial audio book and finding it to be more acted than read – there’s no room for your imagination to take hold of the story because the reader has not so much read the text as interpreted it. Our readers know how to walk that fine line of holding the listeners attention, while still letting the words speak for themselves.

My point is that our volunteers are more professional than the professionals. They are also dedicated. Around the state every morning volunteers get up early to read newspapers live on the air. Each week, dozens of volunteers slip into a recording booth, or sit in front of their recording console at home, to produce nearly flawless recordings. They don’t have a producer sitting across from them to monitor their work or catch their mistakes. They don’t have a sound engineer to touch up their work. They correct their own mistakes, and do their very best to turn in the highest quality work. To every one of you in this room who read for the radio, I offer a heart-felt thank you. May it extend outward and across time to every dedicated volunteer who has made the Radio Talking Book so successful, and a model of quality service.

The second thing that jumps out at me from reading about that early history of the Radio Talking Book is the convictions that informed its creation. C. Stanley Potter and others needed to know that this new service would, in fact, further the goals of inclusion, equality, and access for blind and visually impaired Minnesotans. Fifty years on, as we consider ways of enhancing the service for the 21st century, we have to be guided by that same question. It’s an understatement to say that a lot has changed since 1969. The advent of assistive technology, and of products like Smartphones that are accessible out-of-the-box mean that the changes for people who are blind or visually impaired have perhaps been even more dramatic. How can a radio reading service continue to play a vital role in promoting access and equality in a world that has changed so much.

We don’t fully know all the answers to that question yet, but here’s one thing that’s very clear: human-voiced audio still matters.

In a turn of events that would probably be impossible to explain to C. Stanley Potter, we can now upload the books that our volunteers record to a digital distribution service called BARD that’s run by the National Library Service. Consistently, the books recorded for the RTB are among the most downloaded titles. Through BARD and through the podcasts we’ve been creating, we’ve expanded our reach exponentially.

We know that even in the digital world, access to print is still critical. Perhaps especially in a digital world, access to print is critical. We don’t live in a world where picking up the paper from your doorstep and reading it with your coffee is the norm. But we do live in a world where equality for all hasn’t yet been realized. We know that the Radio Talking Book will continue to play a part in closing the gap. Thanks to each and every one of you – staff, listeners, funders, and volunteers for fifty years of making access to print a reality. Here’s to the next fifty!